By Bert Duplessis, Fish Eagle Safaris
Earlier during the trip we had spent several days in Cape Town and the South-western Cape. I have been visiting Cape Town regularly since the 70’s yet there is always some new facet of the city to discover. This time around the most memorable events included a delightful meal at the Opal Lounge on lower Kloof Street, a most worthwhile outing on the Cable Car to the summit of Table Mountain, a convivial and delicious dinner with friends at Baia Restaurant at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, and a day outing around the Peninsula with our Tours and Trails guide Thomas.
Our first night in the Cape was spent at Ellerman House, a superb small deluxe hotel overlooking Bantry Bay on the western side of the Cape Peninsula. After two solid days of traveling it was a relief to be shown to such as huge, well-appointed room with one of the best views I have ever enjoyed in 40 years of travel. Kathleen and I wasted no time to enjoy a complimentary welcome drink on the balcony. There is nothing like an uninterrupted view of the ocean, and better yet the actual sound of waves crashing on the shoreline, to erase all thoughts of TSA inspections, airline food, passport checks and worrying about overhead luggage space. Suddenly, our most pressing priority was when to have dinner, and all we had to worry about was not to flood the bathroom. Cape Town has the most awesome water pressure of any city I’ve been to.
The rest of our short stay at Ellerman House was every bit as enjoyable as we had anticipated. Next time, we will stay longer and not plan anything for a day or two. We barely scratched the surface even though we packed in quite a lot in just a day. Fantastic food, an amazing wine list, complimentary bubbly for our anniversary and Kathleen’s birthday, enjoying the garden, the pool with a view, visiting the art gallery and perusing the many original South African works of art which adorn the entrance, hallways, formal dining room, lounge and library.
Welgelegen Guest House
The next day we reluctantly bade farewell to Ellerman House and crossed over the mountain to Welgelegen, a somewhat more modest yet no less interesting guest house in the City Bowl area. Welgelegen is a warm and friendly bed & breakfast where manager Janine really went all out to assist us and to make our stay enjoyable. Our room was of a good size and quite comfortable, although it let in too much sunlight through a stained glass window separating the room and the porch. Not conducive to sleeping in! Complimentary port and sherry was a nice touch. Breakfast was excellent too, with a nice assortment of fresh fruit, freshly baked bread, scones, assorted variety meats and cheeses and of course eggs to order with bacon and/or sausage, fresh toast and good French press coffee. Welgelegen’s best feature is its proximity to Kloof Street with its many restaurants, shops, a grocery store, and the like. We enjoyed a light lunch at Cafe Paradiso and dinner at the Opal Lounge. I would recommend the latter for anyone visiting Cape Town; it is rated as one of the top 5 restaurants in the city. We had a superb dinner there – I even had some Malva pudding (dessert) which was irresistible.
On the afternoon of our first day in Cape Town, the four of us took an enjoyable stroll down Kloof and Long Street all the way to the Company’s Garden, the Houses of Parliament, Tuynhuis (the president’s residence when in Cape Town) admiring various statues, buildings and vistas. It was a beautiful, crisp Cape day, rather chilly as Cape Town can be at any time of the year.
Peninsula Day Tour
On November 5 we were collected for a full day guided tour of the Cape Peninsula with our guide Thomas, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Via Sea Point and Bantry Bay (this time looking up towards Ellerman House) we drove along the coastal route to Hout Bay where we spent half an hour or so admiring the setting. Like several other Cape area attractions, Hout Bay has become very popular with international visitors and it felt decidedly ‘touristy.
Even so, we enjoyed the break from the vehicle, watching a couple of habituated seals cavorting in the harbor. From there the road winds up and around the spectacular Chapman’s Peak Drive, one of Africa’s top scenic drives, reminiscent of portions of Big Sur in California.
Eventually we made our way past the coastal town of Kommetjie to the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. Here, we drove to the marker for the South-western most point of Africa, and then enjoyed a surprisingly good lunch at the restaurant at the base of the funicular which takes visitors to the viewpoint.
Our next stop was Boulders Beach where we paid an entrance fee and walked along a short boardwalk to the African Penguin viewing site. There were a few dozen penguins to be seen, several of which were in moult. Not too long ago, Boulders Beach was a popular family beach but nowadays it is the exclusive domain of the penguins. Good to see that the National Parks Board have figured out a way to cash in on the birds. Anything to help protect them.
Early the next morning, when it was still partly cloudy at the summit, we took the cable car ride to the top of Table Mountain. This is really something that every visitor to the city should do: great views over the city itself, Robben Island and surrounding areas. We spent about an hour walking around the various paths close to the upper terminus, had a cup of tea and then took the next car down. By then – it was a Saturday morning – there was a huge line of people waiting to buy tickets. So go early or better yet, purchase a ticket in advance.
GROOTBOS NATURE RESERVE, SOUTHERN CAPE
By late morning we hit the N2 freeway out of Cape Town and drove to Somerset West where we turned off on the spectacular coastal route via Gordon’s Bay, Betty’s Bay and Kleinmond to Hermanus. From there it was an easy drive to Grootbos Nature Reserve, which is between the hamlet of Stanford and Gansbaai. Parts of this coastal scenic drive rival California’s fame Route 1 from Carmel to Pebble Beach. It is certainly the recommended route from Cape Town to the whale coast.
At Grootbos we soon checked into our large, luxurious bungalows, each with great views over the scenic surroundings and pretty Walker Bay. I was initially disappointed upon finding out that we had been placed in Garden Lodge, having enjoyed a really great stay at Forest Lodge in March 2010. However I am now torn between the two options.
Garden Lodge is very cozy and its family atmosphere, complete with a couple of cute young children gamboling about when we were there, is most appealing. Clearly Forest Lodge would be the best choice for honeymooners or people seeking a somewhat more elegant and private setting. The main lodge at Forest Lodge is an impressive structure with mind-blowing views over Walker Bay. However it lacks the ‘Africa’ feel of Garden Lodge with its thatch roof and supporting beams.
The rooms at both lodges (Forest and Garden) are similar; as I recall the Forest Lodge rooms are a bit bigger and have more shelf-space in the bathrooms. Dinner at Forest Lodge was superb: Grootbos is very much a ‘foodie’ destination and it is known for its haute cuisine. So many lodges in Southern Africa are way too ambitious in their cooking which invariably leads to a disappointing meal. That is not the case at Grootbos. I have yet to be served a bad meal there.
GREAT WHITE SHARK CAGE DIVING
On the morning of Nov 7 the weather was ideal for our Great White Shark diving trip. There was just a gentle breeze blowing with no white tops visible on Walker Bay when our driver from Grootbos dropped us off at the Marine Dynamics base. After a very thorough briefing and orientation, including a talk from a resident marine biologist, we were off on our shark adventure. First though we had to collect our gear consisting of a waterproof jacket, a life-preserver and most importantly a wetsuit and goggles. Then we trudged down the road towards the harbor and boarded our very new boat which can take up to 40 passengers. Altogether there were about 36 divers and spectators on board, with plenty of space to spread out on the top and regular deck, fore and aft. I found a secure spot for the 20 minute or so rather bumpy trip to Shark Alley where we dropped anchor with Dyer Island in the background.
Within 15 to 20 minutes the first Great White Sharks started to show up, slowly swimming in a circle around the boat. They have an exceptionally good sense of smell and the sardine scented oil which Marine Dynamics use to attract them (so that they don’t have to actually ‘feed’ the sharks by tossing out pieces of fish etc) was clearly having the desired effect. Soon enough, the first group of 6 or 7 divers entered the cage for their private and up close encounter with these amazing animals.
Fully grown Great White Sharks are magnificent creatures and every bit as impressive in real life as in all the documentaries, books and other media where I had previously seen them. Once in the cage myself – the first few minutes were surprisingly chilly until the water seeping into the wet suit warms up – I marveled at the power and grace of the sharks as they repeatedly made runs at a dummy seal and a big hunk of bait being dragged towards the cage. Once or twice they bumped the cage, or came so close that it elicited a series of shrieks from two Swedish girls who occupied the two spots on the far left side of the cage, next to me. With their massive jaws spread open all the way, they certainly presented an awesome sight in the old-fashioned sense of the word. However I never felt apprehensive or exposed to danger. As long as you don’t extend any digits or limbs through the edge of the cage itself, it is quite safe – the sharks are intent on catching the fake seal or taking the bait, not the spectators.
Once back in dry clothes, I enjoyed a light snack and a soda and then took some photographs from the upper deck, trying to see if I could identify the sharks as they came around and around the boat. Some of them – such as one with what appeared to be propeller gashes on its side – were easy to ID, others not so much. All in all I think all four of us agree that the shark diving outing was probably the single most exciting event on our Africa trip. I would do it again but would take my own goggles the next time; the ones I had were pretty leaky so it was a bit of a struggle to dump out the water between every shark sighting.
Later that afternoon our Grootbos guide Billy took us to a home overlooking Walker Bay, from where we observed numerous Southern Right Whales cavorting in the bay, several of them leaping from the water in spectacular fashion, also known as breaching. I did my best but could never capture the perfect shot – the pesky whales were always breaching in a spot where I was not expecting them. Nonetheless it was a great experience and we enjoyed watching the sun set over Walker Bay, with snacks and sparkling wine turning it into a festive occasion.
Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
The next morning we returned to Cape Town via a different scenic route, making a lunch stop in the quaint village of Franschoek. By late afternoon we were back in the Mother City, this time opting for the Cape Grace Hotel. We’ve spent time at this hotel on various occasions over the years; it is certainly looking very good in its recently refashioned state. We did not have time to dine at the restaurant but enjoyed cocktails in the Bascule Lounge, before dinner at Meloncino, a fun and casual Italian restaurant in the V & A Waterfront. The V & A shopping center was impeccably clean and clearly well-managed, it has an impressive array of shops ranging from small boutiques to high fashion emporia, craft stalls, high end jewelers, a host of restaurants, an aquarium and the Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island. We will try to schedule a return trip to Robben Island by ferry, on our next visit to Cape Town.
Early the next morning Thomas drove us back to Cape Town airport for an SAA flight to Johannesburg, connecting with British Airways all the way to Victoria Falls.
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